In an apparent suicide bombing, at least 40 people were killed and hundreds injured ahead of a public rally in northwestern Pakistan today.
The explosion took place at around 5 p.m. local time, an hour before the event was scheduled to begin in the tribal Bajaur district, located near the border with Afghanistan, police said.
The rally had been organised by the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), a coalition partner in the federal government.
Regional Police Chief Nasir Satti told reporters that the explosion, the fourth in less than three weeks in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, appears to be an act of a suicide bomber.
District health official Dr. Faisal Kamal told reporters that more than 40 bodies have been brought to the local government hospital. Earlier, Provincial Information Minister Feroz Jamal told reporters that there were over 200 injured.
Health officials fear the death toll could rise, as several of the injured are in critical condition.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, one of the deadliest in recent years.
The dead included local JUI chief Maulana Ziaullah. A cameraman from local broadcaster Geo News was also critically injured, the channel said. Helicopters have been sent to lift the critically injured to the provincial capital Peshawar and other hospitals.
Footage aired on local broadcaster Samaa News showed JUI members and rescue workers carrying bodies and the injured to ambulances as plumes of smoke billowed upward.
Another clip showed honking ambulances rushing the bodies and injured to the hospital, while several injured were being carried by JUI workers to health facilities.
Hafiz Hamdullah, a senator from the JUI, said party members were making arrangements for the rally when the explosion occurred.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the incident, directing the security forces to go “all out” to bring the terrorists involved in the blast to justice.
The JUI has long been a target of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a conglomerate of several militant groups in the country, for opposing suicide bombings and attacks on Pakistani security forces.
JUI chief and former opposition leader Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman escaped two suspected suicide attacks in 2011 and 2014.
Islamabad often blames attacks such as this on groups operating out of Afghanistan, which has stoked renewed tensions between the South Asian neighbours.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has condemned today’s attack, calling it a “criminal” act.
Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesperson for the Afghan government, said: “These kinds of criminal acts can never be justified.”
Mujahid expressed sorrow over the loss of life and offered condolences to the bereaved families and the JUI leadership. He also prayed for quick recovery of the injured.